How to Break Free from the Status Quo

When deciding on what to think or do, we often unconsciously lean towards what is comfortable and familiar. We derive most beliefs not from rational thought but from the social groups that we belong to and personality preferences. Learn some strategies for making better decisions. Take control of your life, even if it means a short-term detour into discomfort and uncertainty.

I recently took a long car ride pit stop for red velvet cupcakes. Before using my credit card, the computer payment processor highlighted the 20% tip box. A statement at the top said that if I wanted to proceed, press the “next” button. Well, I didn’t want to proceed. I drove to a cupcake store, searched through a few pastries at the counter, found the one I wanted, and pointed to it whereby a woman placed in a bag. Why am I giving a tip?

At this cupcake store, I could not find an option for “no tip.” I had to take a deep breath and be assertive, “Excuse me, if I want to tip something other than 20%, what do I do?” My twin 14-year-old daughters softly muttered, “guy, what are you doing?” and took two large steps backward away from me — as if the flesh on my hands started rotting with skin dripping against onto the floor. Of course, they were embarrassed. I was embarrassed. Until I was shown the “custom amount” button. Which happened to exist on another page if I pressed the down arrow. By choosing the “custom amount” button, I received a miniscule punishment: extra work. An additional page had to load and leaving no tip required the manual typing of three zeros.

For years, storeowners allowed customers a private decision of how much to tip if at all. Today, pay by credit card and your options on the screen are often 22%, 20%, 18% or a custom amount. With an ever so slight manipulation, the system guides customers toward one of the three existing numbers. The assumption is that customers will reject the highest number and go with a Goldilocks compromise of 20%. To ramp up self-consciousness, a sentinel worker stands behind the counter waiting until the transaction is over so they can reset the system for the next customer. They know their presence nudges you to be a generous tipper.

I felt embarrassed, then guilty for my tip selection, but in the end, relieved that I did not fall for this pushy psychological persuasion strategy. Don’t get me wrong. When eating at a restaurant, I tip handsomely. Even if the service is bad, I assume they had a tough day and offer a minimum tip of 20%. Exceptional service can push it as high as 50%.

But this isn’t about tips. This is about the ubiquitous status quo bias.

Be Aware of Decision-Making Defaults

Given a series of options, the most commonly chosen is whatever happens to a decision maker who does nothing. Left to their own devices, people choose inaction over action.

What’s the most common setting chosen on an elliptical machine? Whatever happens when the machine turns on.

Where do people tend to find information online? By clicking on whatever links show up on the first search page. A recent study found that less than 5% of search engine users scrolled through content on the second page. Consider this: the websites on the first page are often sponsored ads or the result of companies and individuals forking over cash to manipulate what appears. Resist the pressure to forego organic exploration.

If I had to guess, the majority of readers stick with the same cable company, internet provider, and auto insurance carrier for years. Even though there is no doubt a switch leads to smaller monthly payments for the same or better quality.

The status quo bias is powerful. Consider saving the life of someone who dies without an organ transplant. In what we might refer to as opt-in policies, you go to the grave with organs intact. Unless you volunteer to seek out and complete administrative paperwork to override the system with a proclamation, “I want to be an organ donor.” In opt-out policies, you donate a heart, kidney, lung or another body part to someone on the list for an organ transplant. Unless you fill out paperwork, you my friend take part in a profoundly meaningful post-mortem act. You will save someone’s life (or at least try). In opt-in countries, where the default is a hands-off approach to human bodies, fewer than 15% of citizens register to be an organ donor. In opt-out countries, more than 90% of citizens donate their organs.

The power of the status quo extends to money. It’s psychologically difficult to forgo pleasure today for security tomorrow. Some companies automatically deduct a small portion of monthly pay into a retirement savings account — an opt-out system. This system nudges people toward a prosperous future with nary a thought in the months and years ahead. Switching from opt-in to opt-out financial saving systems override impulsive, emotion-driven decision-making. Ask me how much I invested in my retirement account with automatic deductions and I couldn’t even tell you. All I know is that when I retire there will be a lot of bank waiting for an old, decrepit Todd.

The power of the status quo extends to environmental stewardship. Instead of asking customers to make conscious environmental decisions, many grocery stores offer paper bags. If you dislike the weak handles and easily ripped material, you can ask for single-use plastic bags. But the onus is on you to be assertive. You have to ask the cashier. You have the people on line listening in. Now some stores invest further in the cause and make it easy to bring in reusable bags. Many stores offer free reusable bags made of hemp or burlap. These stores suggest you keep them in the car trunk for the next trip. Make the decision effortless and willpower is no longer necessary.

Create Intentional Defaults and Advanced Decisions

Abandon the idea that the world is set up neutrally. You might possess good intentions to be kind, financially savvy, and physically and mentally healthy. The problem is we suffer from time scarcity. We feel overwhelmed by the number and variety of options for decisions. We find it hard to link immediate decisions with their long-term impact. Most of us stick with the path of least resistance, which happens to be the default — the action that occurs if we do nothing.

We don’t change the brightness setting on our smartphone despite even though night use impedes sleep. We don’t change “How are you?” greetings even though the most common answer (“good”) fails to spur conversation. Experiment with an alternative that fuels intimate disclosures. Try: What’s good in your life? What’s interesting? What’s new since the last time we saw each other? Notice that the default answers relied on rarely work as answers to these alternative questions. Ask better questions and you get better answers.

Once you start thinking about default settings and the status quo bias, opportunities open. Consider your routines.

What’s your routine upon waking up? Without thinking, you go through a system of activities such as checking email, brushing teeth, making coffee, getting dressed, and staring the car. You have the power to modify routines. Get closer to doing what is better for your lifestyle. Checking email upon waking up means outsiders insert their “to-do” list into yours. Are you cool with that?

If physical health is important, a few minutes of stretching increases alertness and offers extra flexibility for a day that might involve a lot of desk sitting. Every morning the first thing I do is engage in a 45 second integrated shoulder flexibility system to prepare my arms for bodybuilding, yoga, functional bodily movements, or a game of pickle ball. I built this into my morning routine. After years, I don’t even think about it, even when my kids and their friends laugh at me.

If personal growth is important, a few minutes of journaling the three most exceptional or delightful or grateful moments from yesterday provide coherence about where you’ve been and heading.

If social relationships are important, redesign rooms so that the chairs and couches face each other instead of a television set. The design pulls for interactions instead of passive viewing of a screen together.

In a nutshell, walk through every aspect of your life. Go through your day, hour by hour. Think about life at home. Work. Socializing. Parenting. Eating. Exercising. Leisure. Sleeping.

  • For the defaults that are working, keep them.
  • For the defaults that have outworn their usefulness, modify.
  • Upon thinking about what you aspire to become, discover and install new defaults that fit.

It begins with a constant sense of curiosity about what alternatives exist. If you didn’t make a decision, someone made it for you. Take advantage of your agency. Start injecting greater intention into what’s present and what’s possible.


What personal costs can you reduce by unearthing unchallenged defaults?

How can you invigorate your mental health, physical health, and social relationships by modifying outdated default behaviors?

What advanced decisions can you muster for enhancing your quality of life, now and in the future?

A Request of You, The Reader 

Watch someone on the verge of creating something new, sharing it with the world.

Watch someone on the verge of standing up to the crowd, pointing out nonsense or unfairness.

Watch someone trying to defend someone wrongly or falsely accused, or treated with intolerance.

Watch someone deciding to live life his or her way, deviating from what society incentivizes.

There is a lot of hesitation.

There is a sense of doubt.

There is an anticipation of emotional strife and rejection.

What’s harder to envision is the freedom, the peacefulness, when on the other side. Even if the mission goes awry, attempting something that matters is transformative.

But how do you get started?

How do you reduce the influence of the status quo in the marketplace of ideas?

How can you maximize the likelihood of being an effective catalyst of social change?

How do stop pretending that what is in front of you, beloved by the majority, is nonsense?

For the past decade, I started a mission to answer these questions in hopes of…

Increasing the number of successful innovators in the world.

Mobilizing the defenders of justice, who refuse to look the other way.

Guiding people toward replacing broken systems.

Teaching people how to champion minority voices with something valuable to contribute.

Empowering people to close the gap between what exists and what is possible.

To move society in a healthier direction, we require principled rebels who think differently and inspire others to do the same.

I uncovered a great deal on how to overcome conventional thinking that has outworn its usefulness.  It is finally ready to be shared.

If any part of what I shared resonates, The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively is the place to go next.

Ready to pick up a copy? You can do that here. 

A pre-order means a great deal to me, which might be motivation enough. If not, know that online algorithms are designed such that pre-orders help get the tools, tips, and strategies into more hands. Activists. Educators. Leaders. Parents. The voiceless and those who seek to empower them.  Youth who could use some training in being curious, courageous, and creative in a world that asks that we soften our edges. If you have questions, reach out to me on Twitter, Linkedin, Facebook, Instagram, and find my short videos on mastering psychology and optimizing the body on TikTok.

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Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is Professor of Psychology and leads The Well-Being Laboratory at George Mason University. His latest book, available for pre-order, is The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively.